Playing the Game

During our interview, Dr. McClay said keeping up with the perpetually-advancing frontier of science was easy because “The game is fun.” Now, after three weeks, it’s time for me to recount my own opening moves in the game of scientific research. Any competitive gamer or athlete could tell you that before you can make a move, you must study it extremely thoroughly, or else risk the entire game. In research, this translates to comprehensively and continuously reading the relevant (or even seemingly irrelevant) published work. Each article, then, becomes a kind of minigame to showcase a new move, evaluate its merits and shortcomings, and determine how it’s helped the game progress.

My reading has generally focused on understanding the specific interactions in the gene regulatory networks (GRNs) underlying sea urchin embryonic development, but I’m beginning to read some more about developmental biology in general, which has lately involved some interesting computational and synthetic approaches! Since week 2, I’ve also begun delving into other scientific areas where my gene of interest (Astacin-4) has shown up, to see if there are potentially homologous functions I might be able to look for in my own experiments. Typically I’ll play this article minigame only a couple times a day, because the real work comes in transitioning from understanding the minigame to understanding it in the context of the other information collected (the other possible moves). This synthesis likely takes up the rest of my “study” time, and, together with the reading itself, accounts for the solid majority of an average day in the McClay Lab.

Of course, once you’ve studied your options, the next logical step is to actually make a move. To start an experiment, I collect urchin eggs and sperm, fertilize, and then transfer the embryos to seawater containing a certain gene inhibitor (the specific timing has varied by experiment). When the treatment is finished (usually a day after), I put the embryos through a 3-day washing procedure, marking them with certain genetic probes along the way, and then use a microscope to analyze the stained embryos for changes in gene expression patterns that might help me illuminate relationships between known sea urchin embryonic GRN elements and Astacin-4. Once I’ve collected that data, or even simply just finished a particularly interesting article, I’ll spend a little while talking to Dr. McClay or Esther (our lab technician) about possible interpretations, lessons for next time (of which there are always plenty), and even just random things about science in general, like the difficulty of publishing contrary results.

Looking back, the composition of this post approximates pretty well most days of playing the game in the McClay Lab. It’s about 70% reading and thinking, 5% talking about it, and 25% actually doing anything I read, thought, or talked about. Overall, my daily schedule (though hardly routine) emphasizes 2 essential concepts of research: the “game” of research is almost entirely mental, while the physical aspect comprises a small yet essential fraction of the work, and, each day, you only progress as much as you allow yourself to.

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